New world disorder: digital attacks on freedom of assembly


A new report from Access Now examines how digital infrastructure can be blocked, shut down, or monitored to prevent people exercising their right to freedom of assembly.

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"As COVID-19 continues to spread, social movements — from Hong Kong to Sudan — are increasingly using the internet to exercise their rights to organize, voice opinions, call others to action, express solidarity, and access life-saving information. They are developing creative approaches to fight for their rights in digital spaces, working within the constraints of physical distancing measures. However, governments are leveraging the internet and digital technologies to quell dissent and strip people of their capacity for collective action, online and off, even in contravention of their own domestic laws, and international human rights obligations. In fact, in 2019, protests were the most commonly observed cause of internet shutdowns —  a blatant action to quell assembly and silence dissenting voices. 

Highlighting case studies from across the world, Access Now’s new report puts forth recommendations for multiple stakeholders to strengthen their commitment to protect the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and examines three current issues: 

  1. Access, connectivity, and internet shutdowns: Access to an open, secure, affordable and stable internet connection is fundamental to the enjoyment of various human rights. Yet, governments around the world are impairing the exercise of these rights, including freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, by imposing internet shutdowns — such as this year’s government-mandated one in Ethiopia — in violation of international human rights standards.  
  2. Unlawful surveillance and the right to privacy: Privacy and anonymity provides activists and protesters with some level of assurance that they will not be identified and subject to reprisals for engaging in protests. However, the use of surveillance technology  to monitor individuals and their activities online and off — such as during the protests in Hong Kong and India in 2019 — triggers fear of identification and persecution, creating a chilling effect on free expression and assembly.     
  3. The influence of the private sector in the online civic space: Tech companies hold extreme power over spaces where individuals exercise their rights, including the right to protest. In light of this power, states often pressure tech companies to disrupt internet access, remove content or hand in users’ data, as part of strategies to hinder individuals’ right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. Transparency reporting is essential to monitor tech companies’ activities and demand accountability."

See: New world disorder: digital attacks on freedom of assembly (Access Now, link)

Full report: Defending peaceful assembly and association in the digital age: takedowns, shutdowns and surveillance (link to pdf)

And: Report snapshot (link to pdf)

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